It started out as a spring break, a vacation of the purest and most shameless kind. How many virgin piña coladas could our teenagers consume as they sprawled in the turquoise shallows of the pool? That would be the measure of success. We'd picked our destination on the Internet, one of those last-minute specials on Expedia. The Copamarina Beach Resort was tucked away in the secluded southwestern corner of Puerto Rico. A week of pure self-indulgence stretched ahead of us. There was a bright little pyramid of laminated cardboard on top of the minibar, with stylized pictures of flamingos and toucans and coconut palms, to let us know that the resort was environmentally friendly. That was why it had smoke-free rooms and gave us the option of reusing our towels. I didn't pay it any mind. You expect such things in hotels these days. They're the kind of small institutional change that shows how far we've come, yet at the same time the comforting greenspeak always makes me a mite cynical, aware of how far we still have to go.
We looked at the brochures. There were diving excursions, and fine dining, and two tennis courts with a resident pro. There was something called a Bodyderm Spa, where we could be massaged and mud-packed and exfoliated until our toes curled with pleasure. And then, tucked away in the small print, there was a little line that said, "for the ecology-minded..."
With this most reticent of prompting from the resort, I spent the next two mornings being ecology-minded. I went out at dawn, into the glowing marine light. Well-beaten paths took me to remote beaches with fantastically eroded outcroppings of limestone and colonies of fossil coral. Green crabs rappelled away before my footsteps. Schools of yellowtail snappers and larger jack crevalle herded bait fish into the mangrove shallows.
And all the way along, off to my left, ran the rugged ridgeline of the Guánica Dry Forest. When the northeasterly trade winds hit the steep slopes of the Cordillera Central, the collision causes the rain clouds to discharge their load. Down here, the landscape remains parched. It is a palette of infinite duns and ocher tones, punctuated by the sharp grace notes of wildflowers, blue, pink, and white. The plant life is hunched and contorted, sculpted to meet the demands of drought, wind, and salt. Walk here and you walk through a 10,000-acre bonsai garden.
On about the fourth day, I took along a brochure that the front desk had dug out from somewhere. It told me that the forest was a UNESCO biosphere reserve, perhaps the finest remaining subtropical dry forest in the world. It contained almost 50 endangered species, I read, one-third of them unique to the island. Geckos and anoles flashed across the trails, making small rustling sounds like sandpaper. I looked in vain for the iridescent flash of a reclusive blue-tailed ground lizard. I compared the line drawings to the plants I saw along the way, making doggerel rhymes of their unfamiliar names: Alelí, Guayacán, and Tintillo; Corcho bobo, ucar, albarillo. The leaves of the albarillo were rolled up against the heat like small, dark cheroots.
Checkout came much too soon. As I fiddled around for my credit card, I noticed that the receptionist was neatly folding a stack of green and yellow polo shirts. Wanting a souvenir, I asked if I could buy one. She shook her head. No; these are only for the Green Team. I must have looked puzzled. Oh, she explained, those are the staff who do all the environmental stuff around here-putting down organic fertilizers, seeding new clusters of staghorn coral to revive the offshore reefs, recycling graywater through the lawn sprinkler system. "Didn't you know?" she asked me shyly. "We won the Green Hotel of the Year Award."
For the ecology-minded… That line haunted me all the way to the airport. Why wasn't "Green Hotel of the Year" waving from the flagpole in the parking lot? Why wasn't it emblazoned on every twice-used towel? The suggestion was that we were still a special interest, segregated from the ordinary run of folk, a small tribe with whims to be catered to, like shuffleboard players or jai-alai fanatics. It said that the Guánica Dry Forest, and the work of the Green Team, were of concern only to some small number among us, rather than being a part of our common human fabric. And like the token greenspeak at your local Holiday Inn, it was a reminder, once again, of how far we still have to go.